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Chasing Alaska: A Portrait Of The Last Frontier Then And Now Paperback – May 7, 2013
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After moving to Alaska for work in 1999, Bernard discovered that distant relatives had relocated there a century before and that one of them, Captain Joe Bernard, was buried just a few feet from his new home. In the years that followed, Bernard tracked Joe’s adventures, reading his unpublished memoir, meeting his direct descendants, and finding him in the works of famous Arctic explorers like Vilhjálmur Stefánsson. Bernard tries to understand what Joe was looking for in Alaska, and why he himself felt compelled to live there. He writes movingly of the northern climate and landscape, of solitude and distance, of feeling utterly transformed. There are moments when he cannot avoid casting a disparaging eye at tourists (nearly every Alaskan author feels compelled to do so), and his wish that a native Alaskan boy would idolize local fishermen instead of Deadliest Catch is a bit cringeworthy. Clearly, Bernard cannot resist romanticizing the state, but such flights of fancy do not diminish his illuminating quest to understand his fascinating ancestor and himself. --Colleen Mondor
• Oregon Book Awards Finalist
• Publishers Weekly Top Ten Travel Pick
• North Shore magazine Beach Read Selection
• Bask magazine Top Summer Read
• Amazon.com Nature Bestseller
• Longfellow Books #1 Bestseller
"A thorough and thoroughly enjoyable romp through Alaska ... exhaustive and wildly entertaining. ... The book yields a fascinating crop of adventures and characters. ... He discusses with uncommon intelligence the nature of hunting as a means of subsistence. ... The stories are gripping in the way the best adventure writing is, with enough danger and discovery to keep the reader turning pages way past bedtime. There are polar bears and seasons of privation, plenty of political intrigue and tensions between rival explorers. C. B. Bernard does a fantastic job of collapsing the years between his own experience in Alaska and Joe’s to show how the fierce and wild nature of the people who live in Alaska has persisted over the years. ... Indeed, the real protagonist is Alaska itself, which 'makes everything ordinary impossible to bear.' Thanks to C. B. Bernard’s assured storytelling and vibrant prose style, we understand that sentiment very well. Jack London would approve."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Bernard is an excellent writer. ... His sense of humor and clever words keep us fascinated, not to mention laughing. ... The purchase of two copies is recommended. You will likely wear out the first one from re-reading."
"At its heart, Chasing Alaska becomes a story not only of Alaska's land, history, and wildlife. It becomes a story about its people. ... Poignant."
"Bernard writes movingly of the northern climate and landscape, of solitude and distance, of feeling utterly transformed. ... An illuminating quest to understand his fascinating ancestor and himself."
"The story of Joe Bernard—and his descendants' attempts to understand him and each other—makes this worth a read."
"This lyrical book, with its abundant wisdom, humility, and grace, made me see Alaska anew and with deeper regard. Bravo, C. B."
—Kim Heacox, author of The Only Kayak and Visions of a Wild America
"C. B. Bernard deftly takes us along on the pivotal journey of following his lodestar. His life and his words flourish for this continental migration, and his journey is like an extended vision quest. Through his eye we gather the extreme diversity of the land and the colorful people who inhabit it, past and present. By strapping us in for the ride, Bernard reminds us that we too might discover the breadths of our own waiting potentials."
—Mark Warren, author of Two Winters in a Tipi
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Top Customer Reviews
Really enjoyed reading this book.
Thus begins an interwoven narrative of the author’s journey chasing not just Alaska, but his own family history, and through it, a new understanding of himself. Through a combination of Joe’s personal journals, historical documents and letters, and accounts from those who knew him, Bernard combines his own Alaskan travels and adventures with Joe’s often harrowing, always fascinating forays into an Alaska then still unknown to most non-natives.
Part of the book’s strength is Bernard’s ability to depict the complex landscape of Alaskan life in ever-shifting shades of gray rather than the perhaps more comforting lines of black and white. Some of these shades can be discomforting, such as the passages describing Joe Bernard making captives of polar bear cubs or the unloading of an astonishing 1,400 sets of fox fur, a reminder that early Alaskan pioneers trapped and hunted for profit, or sometimes even entertainment, as well as sustenance. And yet Bernard always draws readers back to the foundation that frames the larger picture of early Alaskan life—survival against sometimes impossible odds. After all, how many people born in relatively safe and prosperous places know what it’s like not simply to be hungry, cold, or exhausted, but to be in danger of starving or freezing to death miles from any hope of help or rescue? Such are the realities of Joe’s Alaska and, to a much lesser degree, of the Alaska that still exists for those, like the author, intrepid enough to venture off the cruise ships and well-marked paths.
Another strength is how Bernard’s journalism background shines through in his ability to cover a wide range of topics--tourism and cruise ships, for-profit guided hunting and fishing, and the intricacies of the salmon trade, to name just a few-- in a way that is informative, but never dull or didactic. The narrative also comes alive with the people he meets, from colorful locals and troopers and pilots as stoic as they are heroic to the characters that inhabit the state’s seedier, shadier sides. And underlying everything are the unmistakable signs of the environmental threats and exploitation of resources that threaten the unique Alaskan wilderness at a frightening rate.
Having little prior interest in either Alaska or traditional travel guides, I normally wouldn’t have given this book a read. Fortunately for me, a recommendation from an author I admire inspired me to take a chance that was more than well rewarded. C.B. Bernard’s book is anything but a traditional travel guide. In fact, those looking for a dry, personality-free rehash of tourist tips and Wikipedia landmarks should definitely look somewhere else. And although the book is of course about Alaska, it’s also about so much more. In the words of the author himself: “Alaska is changing faster than ever. Some people work to instigate that change, to facilitate the transition into the new Alaska—to mold it into what they think it could be rather than embracing what it is—while others fight to keep things as they were. In that way, our relationship with Alaska seems no different than our relationships with the people we love.”
The untamed danger of Alaska is an inextricable part of its appeal—the adventure and thrill of wild places many of us may never experience firsthand. I’m glad I got to experience a part of it in the pages of this book. Both Joe and C.B Bernard’s Alaskan adventures have given me new insight and interest in this epic piece of land, and who knows—someday I may even venture off the well-marked paths and create some Alaskan adventures of my own.
This could be considered an introduction to the great state of Alaska with no hyperbole but sticking to the fantastic facts. Even modern, post oil boom Alaska is included. But it is also a history or introduction to the earliest white man's explorations, earlier than official or government assays into the land and the obscure bays. Sometimes Bernard is trapped or held in the grip of the icy north for up to five years before he can get loose with his furs to trade in ports that are free. Towns and locations are viewed in detail. The outer limits of Alaska are probed as Bernard experienced them in the early 20th century and as they are today, a century later. All is since global warming demonstrated itself in retreating glaciers but while the arctic was still fearfully evident.